This month the United Nations will welcome thousands of government officials to New York for the 2018 High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the annual high-level meeting to discuss progress on the implementation of the SDGs. 47 countries will voluntarily report on their progress to date, focusing on what institutional reforms they’ve made, which partners they’ve engaged, and their sector plans, but if the last two Forums are anything to go by these reports will be focused on process rather than substance. This was to be expected in the first two years of implementation but we’re now 1000 days into this effort, more than one fifth of the way through. For the HLPF to be a meaningful discussion it needs to focus less on the how and more on the where and the what. Where are countries making progress? Amongst which population groups? What sectors are seeing most change? What issues are falling behind?

To support such in-depth, substantive discussion we need evidence and data. The importance of data was well recognized in The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which called for “quality, accessible, timely and reliable disaggregated data…to help with the measurement of progress and to ensure that no one is left behind.” And yet, very few of the VNRs delivered to date have placed quantitative or qualitative evidence at the center of their story.

At a recent Berlin meeting of the “Friends of High Ambition”(an informal group of researchers, experts, and policy-makers all devoted to making the SDG process, and the UN itself, as impactful as possible) this was the topic of intense discussion.  Two primary questions arose; first, how do we use evidence and data to make current national SDG implementation processes more robust? And second, how do we use data and scientific evidence to galvanize global action? Here follows a quick summary of my ideas, augmented by the brilliant inputs of colleagues at the meeting.

Using evidence and data to strengthen national implementation

Three proposals were made to help make national SDG implementation processes, including Voluntary National Reviews, more robust and evidence-based. First, countries might consider adding scientific advisory boards to their national SDG implementation committees or councils including academics, sector experts, and national statisticians, who can use national statistics and third party evidence to interrogate progress and encourage an unbiased discussion on whether and how government policies and programs are having an impact. An interesting example is provided by Germany, where there is an official science platform, and an academic and Parliamentary peer review group, chaired by Helen Clark, that was just established to provide input into and monitor the national Sustainability Strategy.

Second, the UN and international non-governmental organizations, including research institutions like SDSN, should showcase and herald models of VNRs which are data-based, and which have used both qualitative and quantitative evidence as the basis of national consultations and preparation of the VNR. Denmark and Colombia have made great progress in this regard, inviting independent academics and CSOs into their national SDG implementation discussions to provide independent evidence and input. Stats Denmark goes so far as to rely on non-governmental organizations for the production of an array of their official statistics. Colombia will present a VNR at this year’s HLPF and there are high hopes that this review might provide a model for other countries, of data underpinning a critical discussion of national progress. (For more on what VNRs tell us about national progress on Leave No One Behind, and for recommendations on how to make them more data-based and practical, read ODI’s great new briefing, here).

Third, in planning the HLPF, UNDESA should encourage the lead discussants at each VNR session to take a more open and critical role, drawing on national data to interrogate and query the presentations in an independent, academic manner. Based on my experience as a discussant last year, I would recommend lead discussants also be given more time (more than the current allocation of 5 minutes) to reflect upon all three VNR presentations. Countries should also be asked to make their reports and presentations available to discussants at least two weeks in advance to allow sufficient time for the discussant to review the evidence, triangulate against other sources, confer with national representatives on the process and prepare.

Data driving global action

A second major topic of discussion at the Berlin meeting was how we use evidence and data to galvanize global action on the 2030 Agenda?

In September 2019 Heads of State and Government will gather at the UN General Assembly to discuss follow up and review of the goals. The focus of this meeting will be Empowerment, Inclusiveness and Equality, which seems a ripe opportunity to use data to highlight who is being left behind and where. Unfortunately the format of the General Assembly does not allow for substantive presentations, or a discussion on the progress of each individual country. Civil society and non-governmental organizations will therefore have a crucial role to play, showcasing data and evidence to generate a sense of urgency and momentum. Unofficial SDG assessments like SDSN’s Global SDG Index, Africa regional index, and U.S. City-Level Index reports can help quantify cities’, countries’ and regions’ distance to targets and make the case for acceleration of our progress.

A high-level science-policy conference immediately preceding the GA, also focused on Leaving No One Behind, could also provide depth and urgency to the subsequent event by showcasing new research and data on where the poorest and most vulnerable live, what services they can access, and their quality of life. This would also be an opportunity for national statisticians and government representatives to provide detailed reports on their countries’ progress, alongside independent academics, and civil society experts who could query national results in a forum that enables in-depth critical discussion. Formal HLPF inputs like the Global Sustainable Development Report could also be showcased. The International Conference on Sustainable Development, hosted by SDSN and Columbia University already precedes the UNGA each year and would provide a good platform to host such an intensive scientific discussion.

Other ways to catalyze action on the SDGs is for governments and the international donor community to invest more in data and statistics, so they have a better handle on the composition and nature of their populations, have a more robust baseline for monitoring progress, and can target those being left behind. Investments in data and statistical systems should also include investments in earth observation and environmental monitoring, including the human resources and capacity required to interpret and use earth observation data across government. There are various mechanisms under discussion right now to increase resources for data and statistics. For example, the creation of a new global fund for data and statistics that consolidates existing small funds for statistical capacity and leverages investments from private philanthropy. Alternatively governments might consider a commitment to spend X% of ODA and national resources on data and statistics. As of 2018 only 0.3% of current ODA is spent on data systems, which is woefully inadequate given the centrality of data to our understanding of all sustainable development challenges (see Data for Development and the State of Development Data Funding for a estimate of the funding shortfall).

One thing that might inspire greater investment in data for sustainable development is innovative approaches for counting the uncounted. A Global Leave No One Behind Initiative, launched in 2019, focusing on improving the quality of current global, national and subnational population estimates, could help to attract investment in the 2020 World Population and Housing Census Program, whilst also enabling rapid deployment of new innovative population estimation measures. POPGRID, a consortium of research organizations looking to standardize and expand new innovative methodologies, has catalogued a huge array of high-resolution population estimation techniques drawing on satellite imagery, mobile telecommunications data and much more. With a supportive infrastructure that helps match these supply side innovations with country demand there is the potential for the rapid improvement in population estimates worldwide, which would not only improve our understanding of the social and economic challenges encompassed by the SDGs but would help us more effectively respond to those challenges, with more targeted services and interventions.

By Jessica Espey, Senior Adviser to SDSN and head of the TReNDS program (sdsntrends.org). Comments and suggestions are welcome via Jessica.espey@unsdsn.org